Camp Cooking

Like pro wrestlers, opposing chefs go mano a mano to see who can dice and spice the best on the Food Network hit, 'Iron Chef.'

June 24, 2000|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

"What is this?"

That's how it starts. You're cable-surfing and land on a slick kitchen set where samurai chefs wielding machetes hack heads off live carp, wrestle thrashing squid and dice endangered abalone, as tuxedoed commentators excitedly give the play-by-play in B-movie-dubbed English.

"What's he doing over there?" an off-camera observer may ask in eager, inquisitive tones. Or an on-the-floor reporter anxiously signals to an announcer, "Fukui-san, Fukui-san, Bobby just added squid ink!"

For one frenzied, dangerous, incredulous hour, two chefs go knife to knife against the clock, boiling, baking, steaming and sautM-iing the "theme ingredient" - it could be foie gras or it could be plain white rice - into an elaborate, five-course meal.

A panel of celebrity judges that usually includes a gushing actress taste each course then offer comments - "I feel like I'm floating on a cloud" is typical hyperbole - and declare the winner. The prize? Not a measly $1 million, but "face," a much more valuable commodity in honor-bound Japan.

You're glued to the screen. This is hilarious and it's touching. It's haute camp cuisine, and unlike any show, let alone any cooking show, you've ever seen. What is this?

Overnight you, too, are an "Iron Chef" acolyte, watching the late-night Food Network program in a required ritual with roommates, family and friends. Of course you tape it when out of town, something you haven't done since "Twin Peaks" was around. Such viewing habits have made "Iron Chef" the Food Network's second highest-rated show, behind "Emeril Live!" with New Orleans restaurateur Emeril Lagasse.

Soon, you're also an insatiable collector of "Iron Chef" trivia, trolling Web sites that detail program highlights and subscribing to online mailing lists laden with behind-the-scenes gossip.

You're now an authority on the wisdom of not dubbing the dramatic pronouncements of Chairman Takeshi Kaga, the flamboyant millionaire proprietor of the Kitchen Stadium and the show's only actor. You know the temperament and idiosyncrasies of each of the four noble chefs who rule the Kitchen Stadium - Iron Chef Japanese, Iron Chef Chinese, Iron Chef Italian, Iron Chef French - and you've acquired a soft spot for one of them.

With other "Iron Chef" heads, you can fondly recall the night a challenger baked the featured ingredient, asparagus, in a bed of lobster worth thousands of dollars and tossed the lobster. Or the episode when Masaharu Morimoto, Iron Chef Japanese and co-owner with Robert De Niro of trendy New York restaurant Nobu, gratefully thanks Fuji Television for providing him with a mountain of quivering abalone, strictly regulated in U.S. fishing waters. (You'd think he had just received a new heart.)

And now, you can anticipate the Iron Chef New York Battle airing in two parts tomorrow night on the Food Network. The Iron Chefs have been invited to challenge cocky celebrity chef Bobby Flay, owner of Manhattan's Mesa Grill and Bolo, as well as host of his own Food Network program. The matchup differs from the usual show - for one, the theme ingredient doesn't rise from the floor on a bed of dry ice, but drops from the ceiling in half of a glittery mirror ball. There is a live audience - also a new twist - and the crowd spirit is more akin to a pro wrestling match than the reverential halls of super chef-dom.

Japanese dish warmed over

Most "Iron Chef" cognoscenti already know who won the war, taped in March at Webster Hall in New York City, but will still watch it gleefully. If you're a newcomer to the Iron Chef cult, you can back into your new obsession by viewing this show, and then those that have preceded it.

Because, the funny thing is, Iron Chef was pulled off the air in Japan last year by Fuji Television Network after six stellar seasons. With the exception of occasional overseas battles, the 2,500 entrees prepared by the "Iron Chef" crew have long since been digested. But not before the show had become an underground hit in San Francisco and Los Angeles, where it aired with English subtitles on international cable-access channels.

"It became a cult item among the foodies in San Francisco, who are the most intense foodies in the world," says Tom Lifson, an authority on Japanese culture and a Bay Area resident. The show aired at 8 p.m. so fans would "cook dinner, open a bottle of wine and watch this outlandish contest," Lifson says. "It was very satisfying: the luxurious ingredient, the lack of concern for cost, the ability to have expert assistance. It was all fantasy stuff."

Lifson would watch it with his grown children and their friends. Inevitably, they were "convulsed, completely into it. It had the character of a good party show."

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